An environmental saga that began in late December when a tug lost its towline to a $290 million drill rig in rough seas south of Kodiak Island has raised new issues about the adequacy of these tugs to haul oil tankers in heavy weather.
As of Jan. 6, the US Coast Guard, Alaska environmental officials, and representatives of Royal Dutch Shell, owner of the 18,681-ton, 266-foot wide Kulluk, had determined that the vessel grounded on a rocky area offshore of Sitkalidak Island remained stable and upright, and fit to be towed, weather permitting.
Late on the evening of Jan.6 the Unified Command said the Kulluk was refloated. By 3 a.m. on Jan. 7, the Kulluk was in tow by the tug Aiviq, traveling at 4.8 knots, and was 19 miles from land, the Unified Command said.
Inspections of the vessel by the salvage team confirmed there were no visible signs of a sheen, which would indicate leakage of any of the 143,000 gallons of diesel fuel, plus another 12,000 gallons of other petroleum products, including hydraulic fluid, on board.
Salvage inspectors who were airlifted to the drill rig said there was superficial damage above the deck and that seawater had entered some open hatches, and that water had knocked out regular and emergency generators on board.
At a news conference Jan. 5, the last before the Fishermen’s News publication deadline, US Coast Guard Capt. Paul Mehler III, the federal on-scene coordinator, said safety of response personnel remained the Unified Command’s top priority.
“The very nature of the recovery operations and the difficult weather conditions must be managed without compromising safety,” Mehler said. “Our timeline is still difficult to nail down, but we are committed to seeing this response through to a safe conclusion. Understand that as recovery operations develop, it may be necessary to alter our plans to address new issues or concerns.”
Steve Russell, the state’s on-scene coordinator for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, said the Kulluk recovery operation did not pose an environmental threat that would preclude the opening of the tanner crab fishery set to open in mid-January. The DEC is consulting with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game on a regular basis to monitor any impact that the recovery operation might have on the tanner crab fishery and other commercial, subsistence and sport fisheries, he said.
Kodiak Island’s local on-scene coordinator, Duane Dvorak, said that throughout the response, it has been important to Unified Command that they consider environmental concerns and cultural sensitivity in the recovery plan, to the greatest degree possible.
But Rick Steiner, an environmental consultant, and former professor and marine conservation specialist with the University of Alaska, said there was a much larger issue meriting citizen discussion: the adequacy of tugs used currently in Prince William Sound, to tow not only the drill rig Kulluk, but loaded oil tankers with tens of thousands of gallons of crude oil in heavy weather, including emergency situations, such as that involving the Kulluk.
“We’ve been there,” said Steiner, who was there when the Exxon Valdez oil spill created an environmental disaster in Prince William Sound on March 24, 1989. “We don’t want that again.”
“Alaskans need to use the Kulluk grounding as an opportunity to reevaluate all emergency towing capacity for all Alaska waters, including Prince William Sound, the Aleutians and the Arctic, because obviously, Houston, we have a problem,” Steiner said. “We need to use this as an opportunity to fix what is broken throughout the system.”
Steiner also noted that while Prince William Sound has tugs in service, there are none available on short notice in the Aleutians or the Arctic. “This is the time to look at all the emergency towing throughout Alaska,” he said. “I think the Kulluk on the beach is the best thing that’s happened to environmental safety in Alaska in years, if it helps prevent Exxon Valdez Two.”
The Unified Command is keeping secretive the tow plan for the Kulluk and what gear is aboard the Aiviq, the tug assigned to tow the Kulluk 30 miles to shelter at Kiliuda Bay, a cove about 43 miles southeast of the city of Kodiak, Steiner said.
Steiner said that the Unified Command had confirmed that the Aiviq does not have onboard a Markey Asymmetric Render and Recovery towing winch, which mariners consider to be the best available technology in a towing winch.
Steiner pointed to a report to the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council in Anchorage, written by a prominent Vancouver, British Columbia naval architect and marine engineering firm, received in August of 2012.
The writers for Robert Allan Ltd. said that the vast majority of operators agree that the electric-driven Markey Render-recover winch is the best winch technology on the market today.
Robert Allan Ltd. was retained by the PWSRCAC to conduct an investigation into the nature of the towing systems in use aboard the existing escort tugboats in use within the Ship Escort response Vessel System in Valdez, and to determine how those systems compare to what can be considered as the current best available technology in escort towing systems worldwide.
Meanwhile Royal Dutch Shell PLC, working with the US Coast Guard, state of Alaska and local officials, was making efforts to move the grounded drill ship out of the stormy waters south of Kodiak as soon as possible.
Sean Churchfield, incident commander for Shell, said during the news conference on Jan. 5, that the exact timing of a potential towing activity would depend on weather, tides and operational readiness. “Once Unified Command confirms that the operation is safe and ready to move forward, the recovery operation will begin,” he said.
The Aiviq, which has been assigned to tow the Kulluk, is the same tug that lost its tow to the Kulluk in December, in the midst of an effort to move the drill rig from Dutch Harbor to Seattle for maintenance.
The tow began on Dec. 21, with the ice-class Aiviq beginning what was anticipated as a three-to-four week trip hauling the Kulluk to Seattle.
On Dec. 27, a buckle on a towline between the Aiviq, a 300-foot, $260 million vessel, and the Kulluk broke. Then four re-attached lines between the Aiviq or other vessels also broke in stormy seas.
By Dec. 28, the Aiviq had lost power to all four of its engines about 50 miles southwest of Kodiak Island and the Coast Guard cutter Alex Haley, which is based at Kodiak, came to try and connect a second towline, but lines from the Alex Haley got tangled in its port propeller and it was ordered back to Kodiak for repairs.
Other vessels were dispatched to the scene, power was restored to the Aiviq, but the Kulluk continued to drift. On the night of Dec. 28, Shell asked the Coast Guard to evacuate the 18 crewmembers aboard the Kulluk because of the roll and pitch of the rig. An initial attempt by Coast Guard helicopters to evacuate the Kulluk crew failed because of 50 mile-an-hour winds and 20-foot seas.
On Dec. 29, the Coast Guard was able to deliver needed engine parts to the Aiviq via helicopter and also evacuate all 18 Kulluk crewmembers. All four engines on the Aiviq were restarted and the tug Nanuq, from Seward, had established a tow line to the Aiviq, which had a tow line to the Kulluk.
On Dec. 30 the towlines from the Aiviq and Nanuq to the Kulluk separated in stormy seas, stormy weather continued and the drill rig was drifting north from about 25 miles south of Kodiak Island.
On Dec. 31, the Kulluk was tethered to the Aiviq and the Alert, another tug from Prince William Sound, but in late afternoon the tow line from the Aiviq broke and the Alert was having engine problems, so the Alert was ordered to disconnect from the Kulluk to avoid danger to nine crewmen aboard the Alert. The drill rig, again adrift, grounded that night on the northern end of Ocean Bay on the southeast side of Sitkalidak Island, where it remained on Jan. 6, as efforts to tow it continued.
Officials with the US Coast Guard and Royal Dutch Shell both said that in-depth investigations into the incident would be conducted. Plans at present are for the US Coast Guard investigation report to be made public. Royal Dutch Shell has so far declined to make public its investigation report.
No mention has been made of the extensive cost of the grounding of the drill rig to date, although Shell has said it would cover expenses.